Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Considering Wargaming & Troubled History

 Time is the king of all men, he is their parent and their grave, and gives them what he will and not what they crave.”


Queen Elizabeth II figure
by King & Country
Last week’s missive on Osprey books’ wargaming notes – along with the passing of Queen Elizabeth II – reminded me how the legacy of colonialism shaped the supposedly modern world in which we live. It’s not easy, in our tribal mentality, to separate individuals from nations, a monarch from an entire government, to appreciate the good in one person despite living in an imperfect world. People have written carefully considered and respectful pieces on Elizabeth’s long reign and the service she rendered to her country and, arguably, the world, especially as it emerged into a post-colonial, more globally aware era. I’ve seen other pieces reminding us of her role as head of a nation troubled, like most countries, by turmoil and transgressions past and present. Most of this discourse reminds us (or makes us aware) of colonialism’s lingering ills. Those of us who study history in various capacities keep these in mind; for sensitive historical wargamers it presents a quandary. How can we play games based on historical events that reinforced the colonizers’ power and abuse of those they conquered? Is it all simply a game we can blissfully play for sheer enjoyment while ignoring the historical context, especially what that meant for the conquered? Should we abandon our satisfying pastime lest we perpetuate the very ills of colonialism people still denounce today? I fear there’s no “right” answer here (or at least no reasonable person would claim and enforce a “right” answer), but the issue’s worth exploring as our adventure gaming hobby pursuits occasionally intersect with real-world issues.

Aside from my Osprey piece and Queen Elizabeth’s passing, a third event last week prompted my deeper examination of these issues historical wargamers might consider. A wargaming pal – John, author of the excellent 54mm or Fight! blog – sent me a box of roleplaying game books and a host of painted and based 15mm Victorian-themed miniatures that somehow nobody else wanted. (He is, among other things, extremely generous.) I’ve lately come to appreciate pre-painted miniatures, especially in the 15mm scale, almost too tiny for my fat fingers to paint myself. The hordes of new figures didn’t seem enough to mount full-scale battles, but I thought I might explore some steampunk action on Venus or Mars, not quite the purely “imagi-nations” type campaigns some folks like to fight, but a little removed from our own planet’s contentious colonization and nationalism issues. The matter was further driven home by my wife’s sidelong glances of disapproval – whether of me acquiring more miniatures or those minis representing colonial powers and a few oppressed peoples – as I gleefully unwrapped each figure John had packed up like so many pieces of delicious wargaming candy. I intend to playtest my own skirmish rules and play around with the GASLIGHT rules for small units and heroes; but I also wanted to develop a plausible interplanetary story to involve the powers mustered on my wargaming table, part of my philosophy of having fun playing with the toys at hand. While I love GDW’s Space 1889 roleplaying game – and credit it with broadening my perspective on colonial history – I wanted to try crafting a narrative empowering some non-colonial factions along with the usual suspects (the French and the newly unified Germans), along with a twist in the circumstances that transport them to Venus to fight each other and the indigenous lizardmen in their own efforts to colonize the jungle planet. Something to draft for my own enjoyment, or perhaps to share here if I feel comfortable and confident enough.

If I am to continue enjoying my historical wargaming, I must dedicate myself to learning more about the conflicts played out on the table. Much of my engagement in historical gaming comes from reading and understanding more about the period, peoples, and politics involved. Playing out conflicts on the wargaming table is one aspect of my fascination with history. For many the adventure gaming hobby allows participants to immerse themselves in a genre, historical or fantastical, often as a means of escape, but tangentially as a means of experiencing something beyond of our own ability. What’s it like to be the dwarf always watching out for danger? How can I best use the resources at hand to settle this island? How do I handle myself when my rifle-armed troops fall before a horde of spear-wielding Zulus angry that we’ve invaded their country? These experiences can offer us a slightly greater degree of empathy we might carry back with us when we return to the real world.

I try informing myself more about most historical games to have a deeper sense of how these events affected the world beyond the immediate battlefield, not simply for privileged Western white curmudgeons like me, but for those who suffered and endured under the yoke of colonialism and conquerors. In my youth I wandered through historical periods like a casual traveler, immersing myself in those that seemed interesting at the time. But lately I’ve allowed personal experience to draw me into particular periods, regions, and specific campaigns. Visits to Colonial Williamsburg, historic Jamestowne, Yorktown, the Mariners’ Museum, and Fort Frederick all bring history to life to varying degrees. They challenge me to think beyond my basic, classroom understanding of the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War to look more deeply at issues, battles, and outcomes. Living in the middle of Virginia I cannot avoid the legacy of the Civil War: the battles, the sites, the personalities, the plight of enslaved people and US Colored Troops, and civilians who managed through tumultuous changes in their lives. Learning how my grandparents remained in the United States because Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 has sparked an interest in Poland during World War II. All these experiences – and yes, even the wargames – help inspire reflection about our country’s past, its sacrifices, essential issues, and all the successive layers of experience upon which our current society rests.

I have discussed some of the moral implications of playing at war in missives like “Daddy, Who Are the Bad Guys?” and “A Game that Will Live in Infamy.” Wargames – like many adventure gaming hobby activities – offer an intellectual exercise following directions, determining how pieces and game mechanics work, figuring out how to use those to our advantage in achieving the game’s victory conditions. I have used games throughout my time as a parent to encourage an interest in history, challenge my son’s abilities, and discuss some of the more delicate subjects of war and violence. I have reinforced these game activities with others: suggested reading, relevant films, and visits to museums and battlefields. Wargames represent an entertaining pastime one can use as a springboard for further reflection and discussion – essential elements for learning from our experiences – things we humans rarely have time for in this Internet Age of constant immersion in our devices, rush to numerous activities, and the overall ruthlessly capitalist struggle for base survival.

Queen Elizabeth II figure
by Britains
At the risk of seeming to trivialize a monumental event in our Western history, I would propose that, like historical wargaming, the passing of Queen Elizabeth II challenges us to deal with associated moral quandaries. We seek to pay our respects, to honor the end of an era, and in doing so look toward a brighter future. But the legacy of colonialism and conquerors marches along with us. It remains a problematic issue on the wargaming table and a systemic force lurking just beneath our society’s surface. Some folks choose to ignore this or water it down, others try learning about and reflecting on how it affects our world and our everyday lives, and still others find the courage to try changing that world in small or large ways. This is a time of reflection on the passing of someone so multifaceted, so meaningful to an entire global community, in all of the good and bad ways that embody our humanity. To blame her for all a colonial nation’s transgressions serves no productive purpose – as does blame generally without accountability and action – but the solemn occasion can inspire us to reflect on the good she tried to accomplish as a person and the achievements and tragedies of the government she represented. We should work together to acknowledge past injustice and seek an equitable reconciliation. We must strive to remember our history, not so we can exact revenge for past wrongs in the present, but to learn about and acknowledge what’s come before us and determine where we need to go... how to avoid past mistakes and work toward a better future for everyone.

To be a king and wear a crown is a thing more glorious to them that see it than it is pleasant to them that bear it.”

Queen Elizabeth I


  1. Wonderfully thoughtful post, Peter, and very well-said! It's always refreshing to see a blogger take up a heavy topic that doesn't erase the weight with "It's just a game".

    All too often I come across wargamers who wish to deny that these are issues we should spend time considering within our hobby (regarding colonialism and oppressed peoples or if whether it is even right to game some conflicts or situations at all). It's a position I don't quite grasp, because through wargaming (among other things as well, of course). I have found myself driven to learn more about history, about the impact of the conflicts we wish to game, about the societies and personalities involved, and to consider the threads of our past that persist into the present day - for ill or for good.

    To me, and I realize not everyone feels this way, thoughtful reflection, even if uncomfortable, is a better approach than throwing our hands up and crying, "it's just a game!" or worse, cherry picking the bits of history that make us feel "good". Even if some of these issues seem only tangential to our games, they merit reflection. We may still elect to represent a conflict or era on our tabletops or we may decide not to, but we'll have done so from a considered position.

    Speaking of games, (not a great segue, but I've rambled long enough in this comment!), I will get the rest of those figures out soon! I just got back into town on Sunday.

  2. Excellent post and John's comment captures my feelings on the matter very well. I also have always thought of historical wargaming as way to study a conflict. When I would get a new hex-and-chit wargame as a kid I'd head down to the library and check out every book about the conflict I could find. It was probably the roleplayer in me but I always wanted to really be able to "step into the shoes" of those involved. As John said, when you learn about the conflicts you in turn learn about the motivations and the lives that were turned upside down. Of course I can separate game time from history lesson time - in the moment when I'm excited about a timely dive roll in my favor that doesn't mean I'm glorifying death - but I do think it is helpful to understand a bit more about all the little counters, slabs of metal, and bits of plastic we are pushing around the table.

    (And John - it is good to see you regularly commenting here. FWIW, I greatly miss your Tabletop Diversions solo roleplaying musings.)

  3. Thank you John and Shawn for your carefully considrered comments. People often see their hobbies as fun diversions from the trying issues of real life, but many offer us a chance to learn and grow if we're open to that. We learn when we have experiences and subsequently reflect on them; a little reflection on the games we play often helps and can enrich our gaming and other experiences.

  4. Nice post thank you Andrew


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